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How To Clean A Headstone

A Guide to Maintaining A Perfect Memorial

A tour of any cemetery more than about 50 years old shows the importance of cleaning a headstone. As the great television commentator Andy Rooney once observed, a grave marker so covered in mold and other destructive elements that it is unreadable for the ages is a sad site indeed. “I wouldn't want to be the poor fellow in that grave. No one will ever know who he is,” Rooney said.

Yet the site of weathered, unreadable grave markers is common across the globe. This problem is especially prevalent in rural family cemeteries where the civilized world has long moved away. To be sure, no grave marker can be expected to last forever. And even Jesus himself taught that an unmarked grave (or a grave that has been neglected) is not nearly as sad as men may portend. It is most definitely not a sign of God's forsaking. And, in fact, in Heaven's view, too much attention to a grave can be a sign of spiritual negligence. Men are called to simply trust and honor God's rations, and to fret unduly over a headstone can be perilous for a soul.

But some attention to a headstone is necessary from a practical perspective. A headstone is, after all, a significant historical record. It can help generations of scholars to keep track of man's story with accuracy and precision. Further, a headstone can be a place of comfort for loved ones who naturally miss a lost family member. Having a special place by which to specifically remember a deceased family member has proven to be a healthy way of grieving for centuries. A dirty, unreadable headstone only hinders such an effort.

So, the bottom line is this: keeping a cemetery grave headstone clean is important. While most modern cemeteries include headstone maintenance as part of their routine service of “perpetual care” these days, many do not. Some have even closed, leaving the families of their occupants to tend to maintenance issues themselves.

We hope this brief description of how to clean the most common types of headstones can be useful, even for those who are not directly employed by a cemetery. There is some good news: headstone cleaning is not, by any means, a complicated task.

Cleaning Granite Headstones

The key to cleaning a granite grave marker is simple: elbow grease. Just expect to do a lot of scrubbing across an entire surface of a marker. Depending upon the amount of debris that has built up on the marker, this may take up to two hours for a 4 square-foot surface. Experts advise the use of very little other than water. Soaps will generally not harm a marker, provided they are of the non-ionic variety. Most liquid soaps today are said to contain ions which can react with the stone and do damage to its surface. Powder soaps are often non-ionic and therefore are safest to use for cleaning a grave marker. But this rule of thumb is far from reliable. For best results, carefully read the package of any soap you intend to use on your headstone. If there is an indication of ion content, it is best to move to a different type of soap.

Rough steel brushes are best avoided when cleaning a granite headstone. Soft brushes, meanwhile, are perfect for this job.

Simply wetting a soft brush (or rag) in a bucket of water, applying some non-ionic soap, and scrubbing away will leave your headstone looking shiny and new. And, in the event you don't want to bother with finding soap that will surely do no harm to your marker, simply scrubbing with a wet rag or brush will usually do the job very well.

How to Clean a Bronze Grave Marker

The general tips we have listed above for granite grave markers apply also to bronze headstones. But this additional word of caution is necessary: many people will try to remove the green oxidation that naturally builds up over time on any bronze that is left exposed to the elements. That is a mistake! This green stain is called a patina, and, aside from being very difficult to remove, it adds value to a bronze piece. Patina can be removed only with extensive chemical treatment that will damage the bronze, making it likely to rust within just a few decades. Meanwhile, bronze upon which patina has been allowed to grow over the centuries will retain its original strength and texture (if not its color) for centuries to come. It is a good thing when a bronze grave marker (or any bronze piece) turns green.

As you clean your bronze headstone, you may notice a few minor scratches on the metal surface. Fortunately, these can be repaired in most cases. Many internet sites (and some hardware stores) offer special “refinishing kits” for bronze. All of these require different procedures, but if you follow directions on the label very closely, you will likely be able to, relatively easily, repair your marker.

How to Clean Cement Grave Markers

The key element to cleaning a cement grave marker is to apply a fairly heavily diluted insect killer to the marker as you scrub it. Once you have removed all of the mold and mildew build up on a cement marker and have thoroughly rinsed it with a garden hose or bucket apply the solution again in an effort to keep the mold build-up to a minimum for the future. (It is best to bring along your own supply of water – 10 gallons would probably be sufficient – in the event there is no water utility connection near your marker.) It is impractical to think that you can eliminate mold build up on a marker by applying an insect killer solution, but you will slow it significantly.

One disadvantage that cement grave markers have over their bronze and granite counter parts is that they require cleaning much more frequently than the others. For best results, families whose loved ones are buried in graves marked with cement headstones should plan to make a trip to the cemetery for cleaning at least once a year. The other types of markers can go much longer without a cleaning.

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